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Portugal government survives no confidence vote over fires

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Portugal government survives no confidence vote over fires

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By Axel Bugge LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal’s government on Tuesday survived a no confidence vote in parliament called by the opposition which alleged the government had failed to protect the lives of 110 people who died in two wildfire tragedies in the past four months. This year’s fires in Portugal – one in June which killed 65 people and others last week which overwhelmed fire-fighting services and killed 45 people – are the worst on record and led to the resignation of the interior minister. The motion was presented by the centre-right CDS-PP after a barrage of criticism of the Socialist government of Prime Minister Antonio Costa. But the Socialists, together with their far-left parliamentary allies, the Communists and Left Bloc, rejected the motion in parliament by 122 to 105. The lethal wildfires are the biggest challenge faced by the government since it came to power in 2015 and have highlighted a glaring divide between the poor, abandoned interior of Portugal and its coastal, urban centres. “The government failed because its political leaders didn’t know how to coordinate or execute a policy capable of stopping the fires,” CDS-PP party leader Assuncao Cristas told parliament during the debate. “Thousands of Portuguese waited for help which never came.” The government says extraordinary weather conditions, including unusually strong winds and extreme drought, made the fires very difficult to avoid. Portugal’s yearly summer fires rarely kill civilians. Facing a growing backlash, including protests and demands for action by the president, the government announced a series of measures at the weekend. “We are here because the suffering of the victims and their families and the feeling of insecurity of the Portuguese demands a response,” Prime Minister Costa told parliament during the debate on the motion. A report on the fire in June pointed to a long list of mistakes, including slow response times by the police, firefighters and civil protection agency. A special communication system for emergencies stopped working during the fire. This year’s fires in Portugal accounted for 60 percent of the total area burnt in the entire European Union. Portugal is equal to 2.1 percent of the EU’s landmass. In the interior, many have clamoured for years for deep changes to land management to prevent fires, by creating viable forestry and farm units that will make land more valuable.

(Additional reporting by Sergio Goncalves; Editing by Richard Balmforth)
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